A Sparkling Fourth

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Growing up in Northern California, I loved the Fourth of July.

I loved the corny red, white, and blue parades, bands playing piccolo music, smells of hot dogs and suntan lotion, scorching days of no school and nights where the sun didn't set until 10 o'clock.

But most of all, I loved fireworks. Not those rocket-launched fireworks that light up the entire sky with bursting explosions to the oohs and aahs of the crowd below. I mean the kind you could buy at a fireworks stand and set off yourself.

In California, nearly 300 communities still allow the sale of Fourth of July fireworks. And I saved my allowance all year to go wild at those "safe and sane" fireworks stands. On almost every suburban block gatherings of neighbors watched impromptu fireworks displays. We used matches to light the cone-shaped curiosities and marveled over geysers of golden sparks and whistling bangs, with their bright wrappers and dramatic names - sparklers, fountains, spinners, Roman candles. And, I have never forgotten the exuberance of being a kid, waving a sparkler in glowing streaks through the warm July night.

You won't see those fireworks stands in San Francisco or Oakland - two of the counties that prohibit fireworks. And from my grown-up standpoint today, I'm amazed at my childhood fondness for home fireworks. Each Fourth of July there are burns, injuries and fires, even a handful of deaths, resulting from legally purchased fireworks. Those seemingly-harmless sparklers, burning at 2,000 degrees, can be lethal.


So, the lazy July Fourths of my childhood are not how I celebrate Independence Day now. Sparklers are too dangerous for kids to hold, cancer risks of UV sunlight have eliminated the smell of suntan lotion, and nitrates make hot dogs hazardous as cigarettes. On the Fourth of July these days, I watch fireworks, instead of lighting them.

But here's the thing about holidays: they bring out the kid in all of us. I haven't set off fireworks for years, but watching those booming displays, my heart still pounds to the beat of three cheers for the red, white and blue, and suddenly I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy, remembering the silvery magic of a sparkler illuminating that long-ago summer night.

With a perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow teaches in the San Francisco Unified School District.